It is 70 days since the Ministry of Justice announced that there would be no family visits in prisons in England and Wales until further notice.
It is at least 10 weeks since children have seen, touched or smelt their parents (I mention smell because for babies and children with disabilities, the sensory experiences are a key part of knowing and bonding with a parent), and at least 10 weeks since those parents have seen and touched their children.
This week Inside Time published a piece saying that Public Health England have advised that the restrictive regimes in prisons (23 hour lockdown, no visits) are likely to need to be maintained for another 12 – 18 months to protect against the virus spreading in prisons.
Yesterday the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory published a rapid evidence review on ‘The effects of digital contact on children’s well-being: evidence from public and private law contexts‘ (Lyer et al) . Local authorities in England and Wales remain obligated to allow looked-after children (that is children not living with their birth families, and in the statutory care of the local authority) ‘reasonable contact’ with their birth families during the current Covid-19 lockdown.
The rapid evidence review of 16 publicly available studies from the UK and international academic and ‘grey’ literature was undertaken to ‘understand how digital technologies can be managed to maintain contact while prioritising children’s best interests’ . In summary the key findings were that:
- Digital contact is more immediate, less formal, and can help facilitate relationships
- It can be difficult for carers and professionals to set boundaries and supervise digital contact
- Digital contact can help to overcome physical distance between children and their birth families.
- Digital contact should be used to enhance rather than replace face-to-face contact
- Appropriate forms of digital contact depend on the child’s age and experience
There is much of interest in the evidence about the management of digital connection, but the reason I’m sharing this study is that once again it highlights what could amount to discriminatory practice against children whose parent is in prison. My previous work on the sentencing of mothers contrasted the approach of the family courts to separation of children and parents with the way criminal courts consider children when separating them from their parents. In the family courts the child’s best interests are the paramount consideration of the court, but in the criminal courts the protective legislation, the Children Act, does not apply. It is in breach of Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) for the state to fail to protect a child from discrimination or punishment which they face as a consequence of the status or activities of their parents, and the lack of concern for children in sentencing practice constituted such a breach.
I would argue that the current lack of contact between children and their parent in prison is another breach of that duty. Many parents in prison have very good relationships with their children, and were a key part of that child’s daily life until their imprisonment. There are not parenting concerns, unlike the situation the Nuffield report considers where a child has been removed from their birth family because of parent’s inability to safely or appropriately care for their child. In the latter situation the local authority continues to be obliged to ensure children removed in that situation are maintaining contact digitally, if not in person (where possible) throughout lockdown, whereas those with responsibility for prisons, have made a decision that no child can have face to face contact with their parent for an indeterminate, and currently unknown period. Children with a parent in England and Wales are, in the majority of cases, only having telephone contact with their parent, and such telephone contact is dependent on the parent having sufficient credit on their phone card to allow them to make calls. It was announced on 15th May that video calls would be introduced across 10 prisons and young offender institutions. Of course video calls should be welcomed but ‘a wide rollout in the coming weeks’ in only 10 of the countries 117 prisons and young offender institutions (number taken from the Institute for Government), is insufficient. It is much too little, far too late.
The government has had a very strong rhetoric about the importance of family ties for those in prison and in their announcement about video calls they say this:
The measure is part of wider action to preserve family ties after social visits in prisons and YOIs were suspended, to comply with the government’s guidance on controlling the spread of coronavirus and protecting life.
The decision not to allow any child face to face contact, and very few children digital contact, demonstrates the lack of equity for the 300,000 children currently affected by parental imprisonment in England and Wales. There is also a concern about the lack of accountability from the government about this breach of children’s rights. When Lucy Frazer MP, the minister with responsibility for prisons was asked about support for children whose mother was imprisoned, she said that Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, is responsible for children who have a parent in prison. I wonder if Mr Williamson is aware of this?
As with the children in the Nuffield study, these children need carefully supported and good contacts with their parents. Digital contact should be used to enhance face to face contacts; it should not be the pinnacle of contact, experienced by only a tiny proportion of children during this time. Particular thought should be given to the ways to re-introduce face to face contact for younger and disabled children who cannot engage with telephone or digital contact effectively (see the Nuffield report for evidence on this point).
The Nuffield briefing paper ends with 4 recommendations:
- Take a child centred approach
- Manage expectations and transitions
- Support all parties
- Acknowledge digital inequalities
I urge the government and HMPPS to act on the first recommendation and take a child centred approach to re-starting face to face contact between children and their parents, and making digital communication possible for all prisoners and their loved ones. Of course there are public health concerns, but these must be managed in order to prevent the long term damage to children which is the inevitable outcome of the current cessation of visits.